JamesLouder


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Re: Are CNC machines ready for Fine Woodworking?

My own field, which is organ building (that's pipes, not prostheses), involves a vast amount of high-precision woodworking. We are making an enormous machine out of wood. There are a multitude of repetitive tasks for which CNC appears to be the answer to a dream--and I dream of the day when I can acquire this technology for my very small shop. Most of the parts in question are inside the organ, where aesthetic considerations, though still important, often must give way to practical necessities. I would imagine few uses for CNC in building the organ-case itself. On the other hand the decorative grilles that usually surmount the pipes could be prepped with one of these machines, before the detail carving was done, sparing us many long, noisy, boring hours with the jigsaw and router. If I had a batch of linen-fold panels to make, a CNC machine would be a godsend, though I would still want the detailing to be done by hand.

Even those organbuilders who build historicially inspired instruments, hewing closely to the practices of the Baroque era, don't rough out their lumber in a saw-pit and dimension it with hand planes. Nor do I know anyone who does the joinery by hand. I do have some colleagues who to produce what looks like a hand-planed surface, instead of sanding--and they use a wonderful Japanese machine to do it.

Technology is a good servant, but a bad master. Others on this thread have observed that they are glad to have learned to work the old-fashioned way before turning to CNC. I think that is very important. Who would want to be limited to only what CNC can do? To draw another example from my own field, we organbuilders face the question of whether to tune our instrument by ear or to use an electronic tuner. Tuning a large organ by ear is a fastidious and tiring process. Besides, the loud sounds can, in the long run, damage your hearing. Today there are outstanding electronic tuners, so accurate that you can put cotton in your ears. If I could afford it I would gladly use such an instrument. However, I cannot imagine anyone using it intelligently who hadn't first learned to tune by ear.

When considering the merits and demerits of using any sort of machine, we ought to recall that for the first generation of the arts and crafts movement (William Morris et al.) even the table-saw was regarded as a soul-killing abomination. I know of few artisans today who are that hard-core. But it depends on what you are out to acheive. If woodworking is a form of meditation for you, a spiritual practice, you might indeed decide to work entirely by hand.

In the end, each of us must ask, what matters to me? Of what does my integrity consist? Few of us do what we do just to make money, because, if that's what interests you there are a hell of a lot easier ways to do it. So spiritual values must be involved and that always means renunciation at some level. Most fine woodworkers have, willy-nilly, taken a vow of poverty. Many have practiced obedience in submitting to an exacting elder who taught them their craft. There remains the question of chastity, and I think that's at the heart of our worries about technology. And what is chastity? I think that the late Roberston Davies said it best: "Chastity is having the body in the soul's keeping." Who is in charge, we or our machines? Honest reflection on that question should enable each of us to draw his or her own line in the sand--or rather the sawdust. Then we must have the wisdom to stay on the right side of it.



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